By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, 2015 Artists in Business Leadership Fellow
A Native artist, entrepreneur, and thought leader is creating a space for the next generation in one of the world’s top 50 most-visited tourist attractions. Louie Gong (Nooksack) is literally and figuratively opening new doors for his work and for other artists through his Eighth Generation brand, First Peoples Fund program Our Nations’ Spaces, and the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at the Evergreen State College. Louie is establishing a creative economy for Native artists across the country to reach international visitors to Pike Place Market in Seattle. The iconic market now has its first Native-owned business — Eighth Generation by Inspired Natives.
But this is more than a storefront above the gum wall art installation in the market. Nearly one-third of the space is dedicated to a gathering place where tribal and other community groups can build on their own dreams. It’s also for the Longhouse to partner with Louie Gong and provide artist-in-residence opportunities, featuring four alumni from the Longhouse’s Native Creative Development program. This is an opportunity for Plateau and Coast Salish artists to create, exhibit and sell their work in a well-established marketplace in Seattle while being mentored by Louie.
Louie has achieved national recognition as a successful art entrepreneur, activist and educator. The founder of the Eighth Generation brand, his values as a Native artist are expressed in the way he helps other artists achieve their goals — whether through motivational workshops for Native youth, business management and marketing for artists, or leveraging strategic partnerships on behalf of his work and other artists. He lives his life and guides his business by Native values of generosity and reciprocity — as his star continues to rise, he brings other Native artists up with him.
In 2014, Louie’s Eighth Generation brand launched the Inspired Natives Project. With it, Native artists can manufacture and sell their work with the Eighth Generation label. Louie wants to create opportunities for community-based artists all around the country who are like him: There is a huge demand for their artwork, but they’re not able to meet demand with their one-off pieces. He wants to bring their art to market by including their designs on blankets, scarves, bags, and more. And he hopes to provide the customers a sense of who the artists are and where they are heading.
While many non-Native companies take from Native art, Louie seeks to give back. He views art like a natural resource — if you take from it without nurturing the environment that created it, you eventually kill it.
Inspired Native influences the way consumers experience products featuring Native art. Rather than fostering the idea that Native people are simply representations of ancient history, charity projects, or extensions of the natural environment, the project showcases how Native people are thriving. They are contemporary, skilled, hardworking professionals. This working artist and business space at Pike Place challenges stereotypes about Native communities.
The store, which opened its doors in early September after a traditional blessing, represents a rare opportunity to reach international audiences with a message about contemporary Native people. By highlighting successful artists, Eighth Generation can create lifelong patrons of Native-owned businesses.
This is why Louie took great care in selecting his staff. They not only represent Eighth Generation but are also ambassadors for the Native community to the 10 million annual visitors to Pike Place Market. In the staff meeting prior to the store’s opening, they covered how to make sales, treat customers with respect, run a sustainable business, and how to spark conversations to help control the narrative around Native people.
The project creates an engaging venue for education and training to energize participants and inspire facilitators with countless teachable moments.
Prior to the store opening, Colleen Echohawk (Chief Seattle Club) stood before the Pike Place Market Historical Commission to support Eighth Generation’s proposed artwork above the storefront. She shared how she saw the new store as “the gold standard for how Native art should be sold, how it should be celebrated.”
The approved art now welcomes visitors. The visually expressive presentation of the store and meeting space shows Louie’s attention to detail. He has created a space that compels people to enter the store and explore authentic Native art. The 1,300-square-foot space — with its white walls, sleek blue concrete floor, and custom tables — showcases Inspired Native wool blankets, iPhone cases, Salish Sea soap, and more. Visitors are invited to engage with Native people in a way they never have before.
The highly visible meeting space features gallery-style walls to display and sell the work of visiting artists. The residency program lets artists reach new audiences while providing an opportunity to create innovative work. People can see Native artists on-site.
Though Native art and culture has an influence on the city, Seattle real estate is beyond the means of many Native people. The project provides an opportunity for artists and arts entrepreneurs to join Louie in accessing a consumer base typically out of reach.
The project exemplifies the idea that it’s possible to operate a business with the tribal values of trust, respect, generosity and reciprocity while still achieving a high level of success. The visiting tribes and guests gain exposure to a business model of Native collaboration and self-determination. Eighth Generation is demonstrating what’s possible when communities invest in their artists and small businesses.
The project provides a model for public-private partnership: First Peoples Fund, the Longhouse, and Eighth Generation share a common vision and goals for elevating the profile and success of indigenous artists. For this generation and the next.
All images © Haris Kenjar.